Women’s reproductive rights at issue in Senate race

The Colorado Statesman

Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall to nullify the recent Supreme Court decision — the Hobby Lobby case — that lets certain corporations refuse to cover some contraception methods in group health insurance plans based on religious objections.

The bill had zero chance of being signed into law this year — majority Republicans in the House also blocked that chamber’s version of the legislation this week — but backers say the vote draws a sharp contrast between competing Democratic and Republican positions ahead of the November election, particularly in the contest between Udall and U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, his Republican challenger.

Sen. Mark Udall

Although a majority of senators voted 56-43 vote in favor of moving the bill, called The Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act and nicknamed the “Not My Boss’s Business Act,” it failed to gain the 60 votes necessary to overcome a threatened GOP filibuster. The bill was supported by three Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois — and every Democrat. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada switched his vote to “no” for procedural reasons, allowing him to call for another vote on the bill later.)

Rep. Cory Gardner

The bill, sponsored by Udall and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, would forbid for-profit businesses from declining to offer health care coverage required by federal law, including a provision in the Affordable Care Act that mandates contraception coverage. It would reverse the June Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that ruled closely-held companies can opt out of requirements that they pay for insurance that includes birth control if the owners object on religious grounds, though Udall said last week that the new law would also make sure companies couldn’t deny coverage for other treatments, including transfusions and vaccinations, on similar grounds.

“With the Hobby Lobby decision, the Court ruled that millions of American women may now have to ask their boss’s permission to continue receiving access to contraceptive health coverage. That’s unacceptable,” Udall said in a statement. Wednesday’s Senate vote, he continued, “show[s] some of my colleagues are not serious about addressing the devastating effect the Supreme Court’s decision will have. That’s disconcerting, but I am far from finished. I will keep fighting to ensure no corporation can come between Coloradans and their guaranteed coverage of health services, including affordable contraception.”

The Colorado race is considered one of the closest in the country — two polls released this week showed Udall and Gardner neck-and-neck — and could be the key to control of the Senate, where Republicans need to pick up six seats to take the gavel from Democrats.

If the arguments sound familiar, it’s because the Udall campaign is taking a page from U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s narrow 2010 win over Republican challenger Ken Buck — he’s the GOP nominee in Gardner’s current congressional seat — when women backed the Democrat by double digits in a win that stunned observers during a Republican wave year. Bennet, head of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this cycle, has dubbed the effort to keep control of the Senate the Bannock Street Project, after the location of his 2010 campaign headquarters, and is reprising everything that appeared to work for Democrats that year.

“Employers should not be in the business of restricting women’s access to health care based on their own personal beliefs,” Bennet said in a statement signing on as a cosponsor of the Udall bill. “Health care decisions are personal. Women should be empowered to make their own choices based on what they believe is best for them and their family. This bill would restore a woman’s right to make these decisions without any intrusion from her employer or others.”

Udall critics say the Democrat is targeting Gardner over reproductive rights — it’s been the focus of several ads already — because he’d rather talk about anything other than the sluggish economy or his support for President Barack Obama, who won Colorado by 5 points two years ago but is unpopular among state voters, according to recent polls, heading into a midterm election when Democrats tend to stay home and the president’s party typically loses seats.

What’s more, Gardner’s supporters say, the attacks by Udall and his allies don’t hold water.

The Gardner campaign and a Republican state senator ripped a Senate Majority PAC ad that began running in Colorado this week, calling it “a disgusting new low.” A Gardner spokesman demanded that Udall denounce the spot, which charges that Gardner would outlaw abortion “even in cases of rape and incest” and sought “to redefine rape to mean only ‘forcible rape,’” excluding statutory rape and victims who were drugged.

“There is such a thing as going too far in political advertising and Senator Udall and his allies have done it in this new ad,” said state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, in a statement blasted out by the Gardner campaign. “Rape victims should not be used as a political football and the fact that Senator Udall and his allies are content with exploiting rape victims to win reelection should cost him the support of women for using tragic circumstances as a tool for his gain.”

The ad, Roberts says, “lies about Cory Gardner three times in thirty seconds and uses the word ‘rape’ five times to lie about the Congressman’s record.”

Gardner campaign spokesman Alex Siciliano seconded the criticism, saying that Udall “should be ashamed to stake the last stage of his career on a blatant falsehood,” calling the ad “outrageous” and filled with “multiple false claims.” Noting that Gardner was one of only a handful of congressional Republicans to favor a strengthened Violence Against Women Act, Siciliano said that Udall “should immediately denounce this ad and stand with Cory to defend these victims, not exploit them as political tools.”

Republicans said this week that Gardner, contrary to the ad’s claims, “has voted for and supported unqualified exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother,” including in a bill he’s currently co-sponsoring that would prohibit federal funding for abortions but preserves “unqualified exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.”

Democrats counter that Gardner has taken various positions regarding abortion exceptions over the years and point to his sponsorship of a 2007 bill in the Colorado Legislature that would have made abortion a felony, even in cases of rape and incest.

As for the argument that Gardner tried to “redefine rape” to mean only “forcible rape,” that’s a charge that’s been wielded against Republicans often in recent years, referring to language in a draft of a bill to prohibit federal funding for abortions. The “forcible rape” restriction was stripped from the final bill, Gardner’s supporters note.

But some of the most potent attacks against Gardner’s stands on reproductive rights center on his past support for the state personhood amendment and his continued co-sponsorship of federal personhood legislation, both of which say life begins at conception and, critics say, could have far-reaching implications by granting legal rights to fertilized eggs.

Gardner had backed the state personhood measure — shot down by wide margins in 2008 and 2010, it’s back on the ballot this November — until about a month after he jumped into the Senate race this spring, when he pulled his support, contending that he realized this year that it could ban certain forms of contraception. Though Democrats say his backing of a federal version amounts to the same thing with the same implications, the Gardner campaign denies that’s the case.

“Cory has been clear that he no longer supports personhood measures that some say could imperil methods of contraception,” Siciliano told The Colorado Statesman. “Cory believes the people of Colorado have spoken and he has listened and will not support that kind of personhood measure again. The federal proposal in question simply states that life begins at conception, as most pro-life Americans believe, with no change to contraception laws as Senator Udall falsely alleges. Instead of deceiving Coloradans for his own political gain, Senator Udall should instead join Cory’s proposal to make oral contraception available over the counter to expand access and convenience and affordability for women.”

The federal measure, called the Life at Conception Act, would extend the 14th Amendment’s equal protection to “every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being,” which critics say would not only ban abortion but would prohibit use of birth control that interferes with certain stages of development after an egg has been fertilized.

“This campaign comes down to questions of trust,” Udall press secretary Kristin Lynch told The Statesman. “Congressman Gardner will say a lot during this campaign, but to know where he really stands, Coloradans only need to look at his disturbing record of blocking access to contraception.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com